How vaccine hesitancy is contributing to deadly measles resurgence

How vaccine hesitancy is contributing to deadly measles resurgence


JUDY WOODRUFF: Even as health care officials
around the world struggle to deal with the coronavirus, a far more contagious disease,
measles, is on the rise across the globe. Hari Sreenivasan explores what is driving
this deadly spike. HARI SREENIVASAN: Nearly three times as many
people have died from measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo than from Ebola. It’s the
world’s worst epidemic of the disease. More than 6,000 are dead, with over 300,000 suspected
cases from every province of the country. PONTIENNE MWENGISA, Mother (through translator):
Measles is a very serious disease that attacks children, and we parents do not know how to
defend ourselves against this disease. That’s why I wanted him to get the vaccine, so that
his body can develop immunity. HARI SREENIVASAN: And military conflict can
prevent everyone who wants the vaccine from getting it. MATUTINA LOBVE, Mother of Child With Measles
(through translator): We have fled our villages because there is no peace there. If we also
lose peace of mind and in our hearts because of our children’s suffering, because of measles,
that is a really bad thing for us. We want the vaccine. HARI SREENIVASAN: Not everyone in a community
has to have the vaccine for protection. If 95 percent of a group gets immunized, there’s
what’s called herd immunity, when the high number of vaccinated prevent the spread of
an infection. But in the Congo, only 57 percent of the population
is vaccinated, according to UNICEF. There’s also the matter of the return visit.
According to UNICEF, while 86 percent of the children around the world receive the first
dose, fewer than 70 percent receive the recommended second dose. Dr. Paul Offit is the director of the vaccine
center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. DR. PAUL OFFIT, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia:
It’s a disease that’s so contagious that you don’t even have to have face-to-face contact
with someone to catch it. You just have to be in their airspace. In other words, if I had measles and left
this room, someone really who came into this room within two hours of my being here could
catch measles. HARI SREENIVASAN: Measles can cause a high
fever, runny nose, cough and red eyes. During winter, those symptoms can be hard to distinguish
from the flu or a common cold. After three to five days, a large rash appears,
usually starting on the face, before spreading to other parts of the body. It can lead to
long-term health impacts, including pneumonia, swelling of the brain and permanent blindness
or hearing loss. The vaccine is usually administered after
a child’s first birthday, then again between ages 4 and 6, meaning infants under the age
of 1 are most at risk among unvaccinated populations. Lack of access to vaccines in a war-torn land
is understandable, but what’s happening in otherwise tranquil Samoa is something different.
Measles killed more than 70 Samoans last year. Nearly 5,000 cases have been reported. Keep
in mind, the population here is just over 200,000. ESETA MEKI, Lost 2-Year-Old Son to Measles
(through translator): The nurses tried their best, but, in the end, they told me they couldn’t
save him. HARI SREENIVASAN: Here, unvaccinated families
place red flags outside their home to signal that they need the vaccine or that someone
may be sick. ELSIE LELESIO, Mother of Measles Victim: We
have a lot of dreams that we need to fulfill for our little ones. But once they are lost,
we don’t know what to do, and we don’t know how to accept it. HARI SREENIVASAN: The government declared
a state of emergency, closed schools and banned children from gathering in large groups. Just
31 percent of children under the age of one received the measles vaccine in 2018. During the height of the outbreak, Samoan
officials arrested prominent anti-vaccine activist Edwin Tamasese, who rose to prominence
after claiming the government’s vaccination efforts would result in mass casualties. Such misinformation is fueling a hesitancy
toward vaccines, so much so that the World Health Organization labeled vaccine hesitancy
among the top 10 threats to global health. KATE O’BRIEN, World Health Organization: Hundreds
of millions s of people have received the vaccine. And it is really a collective failure
that these outbreaks are happening, and an increase in the number of cases and deaths
are happening, and the underlying reason is that people are not vaccinated. HARI SREENIVASAN: And, thus, measles cases
skyrocketed 167 percent worldwide from 2016 to 2018. Deaths climbed from 110,000 in 2017
to 140,000 in 2018. Needless to say, it’s not just an island chain
in the South Pacific surrounded by a sea of misinformation. The shores of the developed
world are also inundated. According to the latest numbers available, measles in Europe
has doubled, 90,000 cases in the first half of 2019, compared to 84,000 cases for all
of 2018. More than half those cases came from Ukraine.
In addition to being at the center of our impeachment scandal, it is also the center
of a population unconvinced by the science. ANDRIY CHERENKOV, Protester (through translator):
No one is showing the other side. There are many harmed children, for example, my nephew.
He has autism. HARI SREENIVASAN: Pediatrician Anna Kukharuk
says that idea changes quickly after exposure. DR. ANNA KUKHARUK, Pediatrician (through translator):
Some people say that measles is a children’s illness and it is better to just go through
it. But, as soon as they go through the illness, those who were against vaccination ask to
be vaccinated. HARI SREENIVASAN: Lest we think these beliefs
are still on foreign soil or that the measles is at bay in the United States, just look
at the numbers. Last year, the U.S. reported more than 1,200 confirmed cases, the highest
number in 25 years. Keep in mind, measles was officially eliminated
from the United States in 2000; 73 percent of America’s cases in 2019 were linked to
recent outbreaks in New York, with the vast majority reported in Orthodox Jewish communities
in Brooklyn, where distrust of vaccinations is prevalent. And the spread of misinformation around vaccines
has been gathering steam for years here. Celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Robert Kennedy famously
have spoken out against vaccines. Here’s then candidate Donald Trump at a Republican
presidential debate: DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
Just the other day, 2 years old, 2.5 years old, a child, a beautiful child went, to have
the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick,
now is autistic. HARI SREENIVASAN: Such scientifically unfounded
claims mean experts like Paul Offit have to keep emphasizing their safety. DR. PAUL OFFIT: The frustration, I think,
is, it’s an excellent vaccine. This vaccine actually has the capacity to eliminate measles
from the face of the Earth, much in the same manner that we eliminated smallpox from the
face of the Earth. So, we can do this. We don’t have to suffer
the 150,000 deaths. HARI SREENIVASAN: The misinformation is perhaps
the only thing more contagious than the virus. It spreads quickly, thanks to closed Facebook
groups with thousands of members. Another reason these ideas spread is a lack
of firsthand exposure. It is important to remember that measles has been preventable
for 60 years, and most young people have never seen its effects. DR. PAUL OFFIT: I have seen a lot of measles.
I can tell in 30 seconds whether or not it’s measles. It’s how sick the child looks. Often,
they’re photophobic, meaning they’re intolerant to light. They look down. They’re squinting, because
they sort of have this sort of mild encephalopathy. And they’re ill. Measles makes you sick, and
measles can make you dead. HARI SREENIVASAN: Experts estimate that, over
the last 18 years, the measles vaccination alone has saved more than 23 million lives. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

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